Cheltenham Racecourse, in Prestbury Park, Gloucestershire, is home to the four-day Cheltenham Festival, staged annually in March and, undoubtedly, the highlight of the British National Hunt season. During the Festival, most of the racing takes place on the Old Course, on the Tuesday and Wednesday, and the New Course, on the Thursday and Friday. Both courses are left-handed, undulating and feature a stiff, uphill finish, known colloquially as the ‘Cheltenham hill’.
On the New Course, in particular, where the emphasis is on stamina, rather than speed, conversation invariably turns to the severity of the ‘hill’, which has taken on mythical proportions and garnered a fearsome, if not entirely warranted, reputation. The stiffness of the finish is, no doubt, exacerbated by the pronounced downhill run to the home turn, but the ‘hill’ is not, as some commentators suggest, the ‘north face of the Eiger’. In fact, over the last three furlongs, the ground rises just 10 metres, or 33 feet, with a percentage slope of just 1.67%. Indeed, the angle between the horizontal plane and the surface of the ‘Cheltenham hill’ is less than 1º so, while it has been the scene of many iconic finishes, it is nowhere near as steep as folklore suggests.
In recent times, the late Terry Biddlecombe, who died, at the age 72, in January, 2014, after a long illness, is probably remembered as the husband of former trainer Henrietta Knight. Together, the ‘Odd Couple’, as they became known, masterminded the career of Best Mate, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
However, in his heyday, Biddlecombe was a hugely successful National Hunt jockey. By the time he retired from race riding, on Cheltenham Gold Cup Day in March, 1974, he had ridden 908 winners and had won the jockeys’ title three times, in 1965, 1966 and 1969, although on the latter occasion he shared the title with Bob Davies. Nicknamed the ‘Blonde Bomber’, Biddlecombe was a fearless, larger-than-life character, but his riding talent was reflected by the fact he was stable jockey to Fred Rimmell and Fulke Walwyn during his career.
Indeed, it was Rimmell who supplied Biddlecombe with his one and only Cheltenham gold Cup winner as a jockey, Woodland Venture, in 1967. Rimmell also trained Gay Trip, on whom Biddlecombe won the Mackeson Gold Cup – now the Paddy Power Gold Cup – at Cheltenham twice, in 1969 and 1971, and finished second, beaten just two lengths, behind Well To Do in the Grand National in 1972.
The Champion Hurdle, run over 2 miles and 87 yards on the Old Course at Cheltenham, was inaugurated in 1927 and is currently the feature race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Fillies and mares receive a 7lb allowance from their male counterparts but, remarkably, in 90 runnings of the two-mile hurdling championship, just five of them have won.
The first of them, African Sister, won way back in 1939, before the start of World War II, but it would be another 45 years before the most famous mare of them all, Dawn Run, completed the first leg of what would become an historic Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham Gold Cup double two years later. Thereafter, it would be another decade before the unheralded Flakey Dove, trained by Leominster husbandman Richard Price, lifted the spoils in 1994 and another twenty-two years before Annie Power – who was anything but unheralded – laid the ghost of her final-flight fall in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle the previous year to rest in 2016.
However, the last mare to win the Champion Hurdle was Epatante, who justified favouritism on the 69th birthday of her owner, J.P. McManus, in 2020. Indeed, at the time of writing, Epatante is vying for favouritism with another mare, Honeysuckle, for the 2021 renewal of the Champion Hurdle so, like London buses, two or three may turn at once!
In 2019, Tiger Roll was heavily backed for weeks ahead of his historic attempt to become the first horse since Red Rum to record back-to-back victories in the Grand National. Available at odds as short as 7/2 at one point, the nine-year-old was mooted as potentially the shortest-priced National winner in history. Of course, win the National he did, but was sent off at 4/1, so while he ‘inflicted the most expensive result in Grand National history’ he did not, in fact, become the shortest-priced winner of the celebrated steeplechase.
That distinction still belongs to the 1919 winner, Poethlyn, trained by Harry Escott and ridden by Ernie Piggott, grandfather of Lester. Poethlyn had already justified 5/1 favouritism when winning the so-called ‘War National’ – an unofficial substitute for the Grand National, run at Gatwick Racecourse – in 1918 and, back at Aintree the following year, was sent off at 11/4 to do so again. Shouldered with the welter burden of 12st 7lb, Poethlyn tracked the leaders for most of the way, but Piggott bided his time, making steady headway from Becher’s Brook on the second circuit to dispute the lead crossing the Melling Road near the Anchor Bridge. Poethlyn was soon ahead, clearly so by the second-last fence, and won, easily, by eight lengths.